COVID-19 welfare claimants are seen as more deserving of support, says new research

Categories: School of Health and Society

New research shows that COVID-19 claimants are seen as much more deserving and less blameworthy than pre-pandemic claimants – but this has not translated into much more support for welfare claimants in general.

Professor Lisa Scullion

This is the conclusion of a new report by Welfare at a (Social) Distance, a major national research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19. The project is led by the University of Salford in collaboration with the University of Kent, the University of Leeds, the LSE and Deakin University, Australia.

It finds that the two national lockdowns did prompt small increases in pro-welfare attitudes. However, attitudes rebounded quickly, and by April this year, attitudes were barely different from what they had been prior to the pandemic.

Using data from a new representative survey of the general public, the Solidarity in a Crisis report shows that this can be explained by ‘COVID exceptionalism’, where COVID claimants are mentally bracketed from existing claimants. The researchers found that COVID claimants were considered much more likely to be genuinely in need and deserving than pre-pandemic claimants, and much less likely to be at fault for being unemployed. When asked to describe any differences between COVID and pre-COVID claimants in their own words, respondents characterized COVID claimants as people who had “established careers” and who “wanted to work” but were unable to due to the pandemic.

Although there is no support for treating ‘COVID claimants’ differently, support for more generous benefits is stronger if this is framed as COVID-related (e.g., the £20 Universal Credit uplift). The researchers conclude that COVID-19 has not automatically changed welfare attitudes, but it has created a space where politicians can potentially talk about a more generous benefits system.

Professor Lisa Scullion, joint project lead from the University of Salford, said: “Although people were generally sympathetic to pre-pandemic claimants, COVID-19 claimants were more likely to be seen as genuinely ‘in need’ and deserving. The pandemic hasn’t led to an automatic transformation of attitudes, but it has offered opportunities for a more generous benefit system.”

Dr Robert de Vries, lead author of the report and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent, said: “These surprising results show that the collective crisis of the pandemic has not made people’s attitudes more generous in general. Instead, they have mentally bracketed COVID claimants away as ‘exceptional’, leaving their feelings about ‘regular’ benefit claimants largely untouched.”

Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger, joint project lead and Reader at the University of Kent, said: “It would be easy to conclude that despite COVID-19, the public has little appetite for a more generous welfare system – but this would be wrong. Before the pandemic, attitudes had become more pro-welfare than the UK has seen in 20-30 years, and support for more generous benefits is even higher if this is linked to COVID-19. Public attitudes depend on how politicians talk about welfare, which means that the impact of COVID-19 on welfare attitudes and policies is all to play for.”

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